Trigger Warning (obviously): Discussion of sexual abuse and purity culture. I promise I’ll have something a little lighter the next few weeks.
Purity culture taught me that my virginity was the greatest gift I could give my husband. It taught me that losing virginity made me discardable—like used gum or dirty water. It taught me that my value lay in my purity.
Purity culture also taught me that I was responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and actions towards me. It taught me that I could prevent rape by being pure—and if I was raped, it was better for me to die than to live with my tainted purity.
When I rejected purity culture years ago, I also rejected the concepts of virginity, purity, and sexual innocence along with it. I needed to in order to begin to come to terms with my sexual abuse. I needed to be able to believe that they were just constructs—myths—in order to slough off the guilt and self-hatred that I felt over having been violated.
More recently, I’ve been trying to give myself space to access some of the deeper veins of my grief around my sexual abuse. But I found I can only name that grief with the very constructs I rejected.
Innocence. Purity. Virginity.
Certainly the innocence I was taught I’d lost is not the innocence I grieve. Feminism has done its job. I do not feel culpable in any way for what happened to me.
But there’s a different kind of innocence whose loss I feel intensely.
I’ve come to think of it as the Peter Pan innocence.
It’s what I lost when I was forced into an awareness of sexuality—a violent understanding of affection and love—at an age when I could barely understand that some people had different body parts from others.
It’s the innocence that allowed me to believe that those who claimed to love me were safe, the innocence that gave me a sense of autonomy and belonging to my body, the innocence that assured me that monsters were make-believe and nightmares weren’t true. And it was ripped away from me when I was five years old, leaving in its place a shattered little girl who convinced herself that she was bad in order to continue to believe that her spiritual leaders were good.
And just as I know that I’m not responsible for what my abuser did, I also know I’m not bad because of what he did. But the purity that I lost has nothing to do with good or bad.
It’s the purity of separation.
There are days when I feel like I carry my abuser with me wherever I go, like an invisible residue. No amount of assuring me that I’m not dirty is going to take that feeling away because the “dirty” doesn’t stem from me. It’s his dirt, his perversion. I know that, but I’m still tortured by the visceral sensations.
Sometimes it feels like I share my marriage with him—the unwanted third-party who lurks in the corner waiting for an opportunity to pop out again and remind me that my first sexual encounter was traumatizing and invasive. The beauty of consensual sex—that amazing experience of soul-sharing—is so easily interrupted by flashbacks, as if my abuser can walk into our bedroom and whisk me away to my childhood whenever he wants.
It tears me up that he was the one who stole my virginity. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the value judgments society tries to place on being a virgin or not being a virgin. Virginity, to me, has nothing to do with the hymen. It’s not an object. It’s just pre-sexuality, like pre-menstrual.
I envy the choice that others have to end their virginity.
Beautiful, romantic, irresponsible, silly, uninformed, embarrassing—I’d give anything for my first sexual encounter to be any of those—a stage of growing up and discovering my sexual self. By rights, I should have been able to choose when to end my virginity, where, and with whom. I’m sure I would have made mistakes, but at least they would have been mistakes from my choice.
But I didn’t get that choice. The end of my virginity was forced on me. My first sexual experience was forced on me.
It doesn’t matter that the patriarchal value of innocence, purity, and virginity is bullshit. What I lost goes deeper. It’s the loss of a childhood naivety, the loss of discovery, the loss of choice, and the loss of first times.
I can’t get those back, and to make matters worse, I find that I can’t even properly grieve them without the words that were used to blame me for their loss.
Perhaps one day I’ll be able to find a way to turn that grief and loss into something positive. Grief has always been a Phoenix process for me, and I’m sure this one will be the same. But right now, all I have are the tears, the rage, and the emptiness. All I have for myself and my readers this morning is the rawness of truth telling without any flowery ways of making it sound okay.
This is the grief I wasn’t allowed to feel when I was five.
Love and continued healing to you.
Well said. thank you for finding the words to say these things.
I could have written much of this…I was 6…I never did marrry (couldn’t muster enough ‘normal’ long enough)…but otherwise very similar. EMDR therapy for PTSD saved my life. ‘He’ no longer shows up in my bedroom, either in thought or in the form of an abusive lover.
[…] A woman struggles with purity culture, feminism, and the concept of virginity. […]
i was raped when i was 12 years old and i feel allot of the things you wrote.
Well said. I think that both extremes of the patriarchical ‘purity culture’ and the current fad of ‘virginity is just a myth/social construct/metaphor’ are both inaccurate, do a great disservice to women as a whole and are both harmful to women in different ways. We as a society still need to develop the vocabulary to articulate the TRUTH about how we as women experience of sexuality and femininity – addressing the vulnerabilities/risks as well as the value of different things. We need to speak the truth about how we really feel and what we experience without being silenced, shamed or dismissed.
“I envy the choice that others have to end their virginity.”
That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks.
Thank you for saying what countless others couldn’t.